April 24, 2023
Issues: Law Enforcement Bias, Religious Freedom
Incarcerated Muslim Asks Court to Revive Lawsuit Against New York Prison Official
If Successful, Lawsuit Will Set New Precedent for Winning Accountability for Religious Freedom Violations in Prison
Washington, DC — Last Thursday, Franklin Loving—a Muslim who was incarcerated at now-shuttered Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, New York—filed his opening brief on appeal, challenging a decision by a federal judge that threw out his lawsuit alleging that prison officials violated his religious freedom rights. The appeal was filed by Muslim Advocates and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and was brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).
While at Downstate, Mr. Loving was forced to disrobe in plain view of onlookers—staff and prisoners alike—twice. Both times, staff refused to close a curtain despite his repeated pleas for privacy because, as a matter of faith, he is forbidden from exposing his naked body. Mr. Loving’s appeal urges the Second Circuit to recognize that RLUIPA authorizes monetary damages. Presently, prison officials are insufficiently disincentivized from violating the religious freedoms of incarcerated people given the lack of exposure to paying damages, and religious minorities are especially vulnerable. If successful, Mr. Loving’s case could set a new precedent that others can use to be compensated for religious accommodations violations by prison officials.
Although the state prison was finally shuttered last year, the damage dealt to those who were formerly incarcerated at the facility, like Mr. Loving, remains. Downstate was a maximum-security prison with a history of widespread racial disparities that have slowly come to light over the last decade. Several prison guards at the facility were previously tried and charged in the brutal beating of a Rastafarian man. Last year, the state Inspector General issued a report that put Downstate at the top of the list of state prisons for racial and ethnic disparities in disciplinary actions over a six-year period.
“Muslims are targeted in all sectors of society, even prisons, and incarcerated Muslims often carry the lion’s share of religious discrimination claims in prisons,” said Muslim Advocates senior staff attorney Reem Subei. “We’re so proud of Mr. Loving for bravely speaking out against discrimination. Should he win damages under RLUIPA, he would be setting a new precedent that would equip incarcerated people of all faiths with a new legal tool that they can use to win accountability when prison officials violate their religious freedom rights.”
“This issue impacts thousands of religious people, institutions and prisons across the country—because in many circumstances, including this one, damages are the only way to hold officials accountable for violating people’s rights,” said Zack Tripp, Co-Head of Weil’s Appeals and Strategic Counseling practice. “Our team represents formerly and currently incarcerated people of faith in states across the country who have been subjected to abuses in prison. Congress passed RLUIPA to prevent precisely these sorts of abuses. But if courts can’t award damages for official misconduct under the statute, then prison officials can’t be held accountable and the misconduct will continue to go unchecked.”
Muslim Advocates is a national civil rights organization working in the courts, in the halls of power and in communities to halt bigotry in its tracks. We ensure that American Muslims have a seat at the table with expert representation so that all Americans may live free from hate and discrimination.